DESTROY THIS TEMPLE
Thursday, July 7, 1997
Location - FNCA 1997
Toward the close of the Gospel narratives, our attention is drawn to the temple. The story has Jesus
cleansing the temple immediately after his triumphal entry. It has him teaching in the temple daily
during holy week. It records his prophecy that the temple would be destroyed, and his cryptic remark
that if the temple were destroyed, he could raise it up again in three days.
This morning, I want first to look at some dimensions of the literal story that are often overlooked,
and then turn to the spiritual side of things. I want to approach the literal story by looking at a
particular current of thought in the first two centuries of Christianity.
The book of Acts records, among other things, a debate concerning the status of Jewish law. Had the
Lord abolished it or simply amended it? Peter stood for the latter belief. It took a vision from
heaven to convince him that he was no longer bound by the laws of kosher. Paul stood for the former
belief, insisting that while "the works of the law" were appropriate for Jews. they were not
obligatory for Christians. I would note in passing that in his letter to the Romans, before his
statement that justification is accomplished "by faith, without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28),
Paul had already described God as one "who will render unto every man according to his deeds," giving
glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works good; to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile . . . .
Two observations are in order. First, there is a strong pragmatic factor in this difference between
Peter and Paul. Jews could accept the Gospel far more readily if it valued the practices familiar to
them. Gentiles could accept the Gospel far more readily if it did not impose practices alien to them.
Peter's needs as apostle in Jerusalem were quite different from those of "the apostle to the
Gentiles," Paul. Second, the story of the controversy as we find it in the book of Acts is
demonstrably muted. From other sources, we discover that feelings ran so high that some devoted
Christians regarded Paul as the Antichrist. Acts makes passing mention of Paul's persecution of
Christians before his conversion on the road to Damascus. One story that circulated among devoted
"Jewish Christians" held him directly responsible for the murder of Jesus' brother James, the head of
the church in Jerusalem.
These devoted Christians, known to themselves and others as "Ebionites," viewed Jesus not as a
messiah, a king, but as a second Moses, a lawgiver. The essence of the law, they believed, was not
liturgical but ethical. It had been given on Sinai and consisted primarily of the Ten Commandments.
The episode of the golden calf, though, made it clear that the Israelites were basically idolatrous.
They could not be governed by ethical principles, but needed detailed rules. "Because of the hardness
of their hearts," then, Moses gave them all sorts of other rules. And what is directly pertinent to
our theme this week, it was "because of the hardness of their hearts" that they were provided with a
The Ebionites knew Jesus' statement that if the temple were destroyed he could restore it in three
days, and they understood it with virtual literalism. If the temple were destroyed, if that concession
to idolatrous impulses were eliminated, in three days Jesus could raise up a tabernacle, which was
what the Lord really wanted all along. The emphasis would then shift away from elaborate sacrificial
worship to the direct divine leading that had been characteristic of the wilderness era. It may well
be that with Rome in control of Jerusalem, they envisioned the pillar of cloud and fire descending
again and leading them to a new promised land. In any case, there would be no more effort to atone for
transgressions by animal sacrifice.
This attitude toward the temple had ample precedent. Ancient Israel was not all of one mind. The
modern day nation seems to be split politically just about in half, with the balance of power held by
small minorities that may shift their support to the liberal or the conservative side. If we read the
Old Testament narrative attentively, it seems that things may not have been all that different in
ancient times. The building of the temple was a particularly controversial move. The narrative as we
find it in the two books of Kings is told from one point of view, the one in which the temple is the
great achievement. Every king is evaluated against a single standard. Did he centralize sacrificial
worship in the temple, or not? To the extent that he did, he was a "good king." To the extent that he
did not, he was an "evil king."
But with this in mind, listen to some familiar words from the first chapter of Isaiah, and remember
that while in the Bible the books of the prophets follow the books of Kings, the prophets and the
kings were actually contemporaries:
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom: give ear to the law of our God, you people of
Not a promising beginning.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? says the Lord. I am full of burnt offerings
of rams and the fat of fed beasts; and I take no delight in the blood of bullocks or of lambs or of
he-goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings. Incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling
of assemblies-I cannot abide them. Away with them! It is iniquity, even the solemn assembly. My soul
hates your new moons and your appointed feasts. They are a trouble to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. When you make many prayers, I will not
hear. Your hands are full of blood.
Or listen to Jeremiah. He stood at the entrance to the temple and said to those who were coming and
Do not trust in lying words, saying "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the
Lord." . . . Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Baal,
and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before me in this house, which
is called by my name, and say, "We are delivered to do all these abominations?" . . . Therefore will I
do to this house, which is called by my name, wherein you trust, and to the place which I gave to you
and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.
At Shiloh, that is, one could see the ruins of the first temple, one that is alluded to in the story
of the birth of Samuel even though we are never told of its building or of its destruction. In both
Isaiah and Jeremiah, we find the message of the later Ebionites that the essence of the law was
ethical, not liturgical, and that the temple was more of a problem than a solution.
We need to take note of the fact that the direst warnings of the prophets came true. Babylon conquered
Judah, burned Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple. Only after two generations of exile did Persia
conquer Babylon and institute a policy of repatriation which enabled the return and the rebuilding.
The temple of Gospel times was a kind of descendant of that second temple, rebuilt by Herod in order
to win the support of the Jewish "establishment."
As I suggested on Monday, the building of the temple in Jerusalem must have been particularly
unwelcome to the northern kingdom, where the ark had been ever since the conquest. When the north
reassumed its independence after the death of Solomon, the first thing their new king did was to build
temples in Dan and in Bethel. In Gospel times, the descendants of those northerners, the Samaritans,
had their own temple and believed that it rather than Jerusalem was "the place the Lord had chosen to
set his name there," in the words of Deuteronomy. In the fourth chapter of John, when the Samaritan
woman realized that Jesus was a prophet, her first question concerned this issue.
Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you say that in
Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship (John 4:19f.).
If we look closely, that is, it turns out that through all those centuries the temple was a bone of
contention. The books of Deuteronomy and Kings especially give us one side of the story, as seen from
what we might call the temple party. The prophets, by and large, present the anti-temple view, and if
we read their rhetoric with the energy it deserves, it is clear that feelings ran as high then as they
did in the early centuries of Christianity. When Jesus talked about the destruction of the temple,
different people would have very different reactions.
That will have to suffice for an overview of the literal story. Turning to the spiritual level, I
would first resurrect an image that I used in Monday's lecture, namely that the task of adolescence
can be compared to deciding where in a huge building we are going to establish our central office. The
tabernacle wandered for a long time before it settled in Jerusalem. We try out various centers,
various identities, before we commit ourselves to a particular set of primary values.
The temple, in that sense, represents something different for each one of us. The ark that is at its
center contains the ten commandments, the essence of the Lord's law, and it is in fact that law that
is in force at all times. That is, there is never any way in which evil is actually good or good is
actually evil. The rules of spiritual reality are deeply embedded in our souls. However, no two of us
experience this in exactly the same way. To use a simple example, the main issue for one person may be
control of a mercurial temper. The main issue for another may be tyrannical perfectionism, for another
hedonism, for another self-righteousness, for another, moral cowardice. Setting the temple in one
place represents not so much a choice of career, I suspect, as it does a choice of the kind of person
we want to be.
One of the very effective ways this decision can be explored is by the exercise of writing one's own
obituary. How would you like to be remembered? Would it be by your accomplishments? Would it be by
your relationships? Should it be by your character, by the quality of person you were? It is this
last, I believe, that underlies all the rest. The meaning of the whole list of achievements, the whole
list of children and friends depends on that quality. This is what Paul was saying in that
extraordinary hymn to love in First Corinthians: no matter what I do, if I do not have love, I am
nothing. This is of course what our theology tells us about our eternal destiny, namely that the only
judgment we face after death is the voluntary disclosure of our ruling love and our following that
love wherever it leads us.
If we take the temple as representing our own choice of the kind of person we want to be, the
spiritual meaning of its controversial nature is both clear and striking. To put it bluntly, the kind
of person I want to be does not necessarily coincide with the kind of person the Lord wants me to be.
I may draw my standards from the best I know of Scripture and doctrine, I may choose the best of role
models from the world around me, but I am still groping in the dark. In Monday's lecture I suggested
that given the depth and extent of our spiritual nature, we might be aware of no more than one
forty-thousandth of our total being. This is not a very solid basis for the kind of choice we are
In fact, what we are talking about has a great deal to do with what Swedenborg refers to as
proprium-what we claim as our own, what we believe is really "ours." Our theology does indeed have a
great many negative things to say about proprium, but it does not take much research to discover that
proprium is what we might call a "mixed curse." Arcana Coelestia ¶ 1937 is one of the places where it
is stressed that without proprium there is no possibility of regeneration. If we do not take
responsibility for the quality of our character, that is, the process of self-examination and
reformation of life never gets started.
The problem with this is concisely presented in Arcana Coelestia ¶ 10210: "For the good of innocence
is to acknowledge that everything true and good is from the Lord and nothing of them from our
proprium; so it is to want to be led by the Lord and not by self." We begin life, we are told, in "the
innocence of ignorance" (cf. Arcana Coelestia ¶ 1616), and must leave that innocence behind if we are
to arrive at "the innocence of wisdom." That is, we begin life with no sense of who we are, making no
claims, accepting whatever is given us. We move gradually toward a sense of identity and
responsibility, in a process designed to lead us to the discovery that since we "own" absolutely
nothing we can claim absolutely nothing, that we are simply recipients, accepting whatever is given
us. The highest angels look like infants from a distance because they live in this kind of awareness.
For this to happen, our own "temple," our own ideal, has to be destroyed. The first of the twelve
steps is the admission of powerlessness, and this does not work if it is simply a matter of
theological conviction, a declaration of orthodoxy. It works only if it is conviction born of
experience. It works only if it comes from having exerted all the power we can muster and found it to
be futile. The innocence of wisdom is "letting go and letting God" in as basic a way as possible, as a
matter of being as well as of action.
There is another way to get at the same message. The explicit reference of the Lord's statement about
his ability to raise up the temple in three days is given: he was talking about the temple of his
body. At a level of meaning that is not so much spiritual as simply metaphorical, that is, he was
predicting the crucifixion and the resurrection. In the process of glorification, these constituted
the last temptation and the final union that resulted from his victory. In Luke's account of the
crucifixion, the moment of death is described in a single verse: "And when Jesus had cried with a loud
voice, he said, `Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,' and having said this, he gave up the
ghost." The essence of the victory was this complete acceptance of the divine will.
The result of this destruction of the temple of his body was his presence in a far more effective
mode. He explained this to his disciples in the Last Supper discourse related in John" "It is
expedient for you that I go away: for if I do not go away, the comforter will not come to you; but if
I depart, I well send him to you" (John 16:7).
The raising up "in three days" carries the message of completeness in its own way. In regard to our
own being, that is, "three" refers to heart, mind, and life. To be led by the Lord in life is to
behave in accord with the Lord's laws. To be led by the Lord in the mind is to see everything in the
Lord's light, to seek truth rather than our own advantage in all our perception and thought. To be led
by the Lord in the heart is to have no trust whatever in ourselves and all trust in the Lord.
The ultimate goal is described, appropriately, at the close of Scripture, in the vision of the Holy
City. It had not struck me until I read that description in preparation of this talk how completely
that city is an act of the Divine. What is said about the inhabitants? Let's look.
God will dwell with them, and they will be his people. God will wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and will give the thirsty of the fountain of the water of life. Anyone who has overcome will inherit
all things and will be a child of God. The Lord will give light to the inhabitants. There are
apparently four things that the inhabitants do: the nations of the saved walk in the light of the
city, the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it, the Lord's servants serve him, and
they see his face. They have nothing to do with the design or the building or the maintenance of the
city, it seems. The city simply descends out of heaven from God. It is not an achievement, but a gift.
In terms of the explicit theme of the destruction of the temple, though, one verse in that description
stands out: "And I saw no temple in it: for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple"
(Revelation 21:22). That is, the Lord's presence is not limited to some particular holy site in the
middle of the city. That presence fills every corner and crevice of the city. In theological terms
drawn from Divine Love and Wisdom, the Lord is wholly present everywhere, in things least as well as
in things greatest. When this fact really gets through to us, we are able, in Blake's words,
To see the World in a grain of sand,
The universe in a wild flower.
All meaning comes to a particular and complete focus at every point and at every moment. "If you have
done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
We have covered a lot of ground this morning, so I'd like to close with a review, bearing in mind the
contrast implicit in the closing chapters of the Bible between the temple as our construction and the
city as the Lord's gift.
In the overall story of the temple, the closing chapters of the Gospels present us with a turning
point. The temple itself had been a bone of contention from the time of Solomon. The dominant theme of
Deuteronomy and the two books of Kings is that nothing is more important to Israel than the temple.
The dominant theme of the prophets is that nothing is more important to Israel than obedience to the
Lord's ethical laws. At the same time that the centrality of the temple was being insisted on by some,
Isaiah was portraying the Lord as one who hated sacrifices, and Jeremiah was calling the temple a lie.
Solomon's temple had been politically controversial, and the temple of Gospel times was, if anything,
even more so. The Lord's stood in the tradition of the prophets in that his overriding concern was
ethical rather than liturgical. He recognized that the time had come for the final destruction of the
temple. In a sense, that is, he recognized that there could be no temple in the holy city. It had
served its purpose; it had outlived its usefulness. It had always been problematic, but now that an
alternative was available, its liabilities far outweighed its assets.
Its asset had been as a visible symbol of the Lord's presence, as a focal point for devotion. To see
the temple was to be reminded of the religious grounds of the nation. Its liability was its claim to
exclusive virtue on the one hand and the blatant fact of its finitude and politicization on the other.
As long as it was the main symbol available, it was necessary. As soon as the Lord was present in the
flesh, its days were numbered. With the destruction of "the temple of his body" and the sending of the
holy spirit, the comforter, the time for its final destruction had come.
In the story of our regeneration, the temple is our construction. As best we can, we build it
according to the plans provided us by Scripture and doctrine-in the words of the Epistle to the
Hebrews, "according to the pattern shown to you in the mountain" (Hebrews 8:5), but it is still our
reading of that pattern and our choice of the materials available to us from the world we live in. It
is absolutely necessary that it be so. This is a task given us by the Lord for two reasons: first,
because it embodies the very best we are capable of, and second, because it leads beyond itself. It
bears within itself the seeds of its own obsolescence.
More specifically, it is necessary for us to have what we might call an image of angelhood, an image
not only of what "a good person" is in a general way, but of the particular version of human goodness
to which we ourselves are called, for which each of us as an individual is designed. This is the very
healthiest form of our particular "dream of glory," our intimation of the best we can be. It is the
source of discontent with what we are, the discontent which will not let us rest content, but presses
us to become more and more acceptable to ourselves.
It is an effort that is bound to fail because the real issue is not whether we are acceptable to
ourselves, not exactly. It is whether we are content to be whatever the Lord wills. It is, in
doctrinal terms, a voluntary return to lost innocence with the new dimension of consciousness. "The
temple," our ideal, no longer matters. All that matters is whatever the Lord offers us to do and to